From the Archives: If You Want Teachers to Cheat…

I’ll be the first to admit it: I wouldn’t have any idea how to run a complicated school district (or anything else, for that matter). But it doesn’t take much psychic talent to predict what is going to happen when districts put a lot of pressure on teachers to improve a single number. Teachers—being in many ways like people everywhere—will cheat. It happens in this century, and as I found on my recent NSB, it was all over the place in the early 1800s.

Pay per kid 1822

How to encourage teachers to cheat, c. 1822.

As I was riding down to the Big Apple, I was listening to a recent Have You Heard episode about the cheating scandal in Atlanta. You may remember the story of Atlanta teachers charged in 2013 with cheating on student exams in order to make their schools look better. As HYH host Jennifer Berkshire recounted,

it was the longest criminal trial in Georgia history. It started out with 35 educators, all of them Black, being charged under the RICO statute. And that is what is used to go after mobsters. Basically they were being accused of organized criminal activity and when the case finally wrapped up, 11 of the 12 defendants were found guilty. A number of them are still in jail.

The Have You Heard story digs into the story behind those headlines—a story about white flight, neighborhood gentrification, and finding convenient scapegoats for a floundering and biased education system. As co-host Jack Schneider explained, the story was first told as the story of predictably unpredictable outcomes with high-pressure standardized tests. As Schneider put it,

the theory of change behind test based accountability is that people will respond to increased pressure, and they will produce the kinds of results that you want to see from them. . . . The results, in this case being higher test scores. . . . the theory of action was that you would measure educators based on outputs like student standardized test scores and then hold them accountable for those scores and they would respond accordingly. But it’s really interesting that it was not foreseen that one of the ways that educators would get those scores would be through, you know, what is colloquially referred to as juking the stats. There are lots of ways to game these systems.

Looking back, it seems unbelievable that policy-makers didn’t predict this sort of cheating. When all the pressure is put on test scores, it makes a lot of sense that students, teachers, parents, and administrators would all collude to jack up those scores no matter what.

Atlanta’s case, the HYH folks argue, was not an exception because teachers cheated. It was an exception because it was singled out for punishment.

As I found to my surprise as I dug through the NYC archives doing research for my new book, Atlanta’s cheating scandal was also unexceptional in another surprising way. School administrators, it turns out, have ALWAYS made the rookie mistake of putting a lot of pressure on teachers to cheat, to “game the system.”

Here’s how it worked in 1822: The New York Free School Society ran a handful of schools exclusively for low-income students. After a few years, they realized that their system had a big problem. Namely, they paid teachers the same amount whether they taught 60 students or 600. One of their teachers, they thought, was purposefully discouraging students from attending his school so that his job would be easier.

As the trustees saw it, the system encouraged teachers to be lazy. A lazy teacher, they thought, would have a cushy no-work job, a “sinecure.” In 19th-century-speak, they concluded,

The place of the delinquent teacher becomes in a degree a sinecure.

What to do? Like administrators in the 1990s, they came up with a system that positively encouraged teachers to cheat. Here’s what they decided: Instead of paying a flat salary for every teacher, no matter how many students they taught, they would pay a bonus for more students. They thought this would encourage teachers to go out and recruit suitable low-income students. In today’s language, they were pushing teachers to be “entrepreneurial” in their recruitment. As they put it, the teachers would

seek themselves amongst the families of the poor, new objects of attention and instructions.

But here’s the kicker: When it came to reporting attendance, the trustees relied on teachers to keep track of students. In effect, the trustees unintentionally set up a plan by which teachers were promised more pay for more students, and were given that money based on their own self-reporting of student attendance.

I wasn’t all that surprised to find that the system broke down almost immediately. The teacher of school number two promised to raise his attendance rates. He was quickly discovered to have faked those rates in order to keep his job.

What did they think would happen? Just as in the cheating scandals of this century, the attendance scandals of the early 1800s seem predictable and fairly ridiculous. If you set up a system in which everything rides on one single number, teachers will be squeezed to fix that number in any way they can.

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The Brave New World of “Workforce Preparation”

You almost feel bad for her. Queen Betsy’s ideas about ed history seem so rudimentary that it is almost too easy for historians such as Jack Schneider to tee off on her. Prof. Schneider pointed out recently how shoddy DeVos’s ideas about “workforce preparation” are. If we wanted to, though—if some sort of culture-war mercy rule didn’t kick in—we could take the critique one step creepier.

system show slates

When the whistle blows, Show Slates!

As Prof. Schneider notes, Sec’y DeVos has long asserted that today’s schools are trapped in an outdated “factory” mindset, that schools today were created to train assembly line workers. Instead, DeVos likes to say, we need schools that prepare students for today’s workforce. As Prof. Schneider writes,

DeVos’s solution is misguided in part because it’s based on a fabricated story. The actual history of workplace training in American schools is far less convenient for her reform agenda.

Nineteenth-century public education, Prof. Schneider says, was always about much more than just training factory workers. As Schneider puts it,

schools were intended to foster civic virtue, Americanize immigrants, and inculcate dominant values. But vocational preparation was not a common objective.

True enough. But as Prof. Schneider is well aware, there has been a long tradition of public schooling that makes Queen Betsy’s promise of “workforce preparation” sound even worse. In a sense, Sec’y DeVos isn’t wrong about nineteenth-century schooling. There WAS an element of vocational training to it, but that history doesn’t make her promises of “workforce preparation” any more enticing.

These days, I’m studying Joseph Lancaster and the earliest roots of America’s public school systems. His vision of “Workforce Preparation” is no one’s idea of good schooling, not even Queen Betsy.

system boys one through four

“Workforce Preparation,” c. 1812

For example, one of Lancaster’s biggest admirers in Europe was Robert Owen. Owen is best known in the US as a starry-eyed socialist, but his education schemes weren’t particularly naïve. Among the mill’s children, Owen implemented some of Lancaster’s school reform ideas. Did they work? In 1811, Owen wrote breathlessly to Lancaster that his educated workers made

by far the most valuable Servants.

From the get-go, “Workforce Preparation” has been about taming disobedient poor children, coercing them into accepting timetables and efficiency goals. It has been about turning “worthless” “despicable” “benighted” children into “valuable Servants.”

It wasn’t just Robert Owen. Consider the testimony of another enthusiastic Lancasterian teacher in 1812:

When [the students] first came, they were like so many wild donkeys of the Common, for they did not care for any thing; I threatened them with the cradle, but that, did no good. So I got the Head of them, put him in, and gave him a bit of a rocking: well! He begged and prayed for me to take him out, and he would not swear nor talk again, upon that condition I let him out & he has kept his word ever since; it took such an effect on all the Boys, that I have never had to punish one since: so, out of a set of wild donkeys, they are made a set of good behaved orderly children. [Emphasis added.]

What was this “cradle” he referred to? The “cradle” was one of the names Lancasterians gave to their trademark disciplinary device. It was also called a “birdcage” or a “sack” or the “basket.” Students were put into a kind of cage, then suspended by a rope above the large classroom. Often, a sign would prominently display the student’s alleged misdeeds. Other students were positively encouraged to mock and tease the caged student.

A ha, Queen Betsy might say, this history makes my point. These outdated factory-style teaching methods are exactly what we are trying to “disrupt.” And that is where she misses the boat most egregiously. Between roughly 1810 and 1840, Lancaster’s reform ideas were the biggest thing going in American reform thinking. They were all about “workforce preparation.” And they were based squarely on the idea that poor children could be non-violently coerced into being better factory workers, more “valuable Servants.”

As Prof. Schneider points out, by the later nineteenth century reformers had recognized some of the shortcomings of thinking about schools as sites of “workforce preparation.” They had moved away from the coercion and punch-clock discipline of Lancaster’s factory schools. By calling for a return to the days when schools focused on squeezing students to fit the needs of the economy, Queen Betsy is calling—seemingly blithely unaware—for a return to the very factory model she claims to want to disrupt.

Conservatives Are Right about America’s Schools (but So Are the Rest of Us)

As usual, I’m behind the times. I’m just now catching up with ed historian Jack Schneider’s work. Last summer, Prof. Schneider wrote a great essay in the Atlantic about the differences between real public schools and “public schools” in America’s culture-war imagination. It helps me understand why conservative pundits such as Rod Dreher are both right and wrong about the current state of American education.

school prayer

Will the real American school please stand up?

As Scheider argued convincingly, there really isn’t anything that we can usefully call a “system” about America’s public schools. As he put it,

The abstraction of “America’s schools” may be convenient for rousing the collective conscience, but it is not particularly useful for the purpose of understanding (or improving) American education. . . . What schools need in order to succeed depends significantly on the needs and concerns of the local community, and policy tends to reflect that. . . . Public schools in the United States differ so much from state to state and from district to district that it hardly makes sense to talk about “America’s schools.”

So when our favorite pundits warn us about the terrible dangers of America’s public schools, they can be convincing. For some conservative readers, for example, the Benedictophile reporting of American Conservative Rod Dreher can be terrifying.

Dreher has told true stories, after all, that might understandably frighten religious conservatives. For example, when it comes to new thinking about gender, some public schools have taken an aggressive role. As Dreher told the tale,

A few years ago, a friend of mine’s daughter, an Evangelical Christian, was in a public school in a Bible Belt town about the size of Brownsburg. The school’s administration had gone all-in on LGBT, particularly on transgender, and the school’s culture was celebratory to the point of militancy. The daughter — a sweet, small-town church kid — was constantly challenged by other students about her hateful religion. The simple fact that she was openly Christian put a target on her back in the culture of that school. . . . I know there are lots of conservatives who think this isn’t going to happen to their kids’ school. Listen to me: you’re wrong. This is a cultural revolution. The day is fast coming where what was once radical will be mainstream, and what was once mainstream will be radical. . . . If you can afford to take your kid out of public school, why aren’t you doing it? [Emphasis in original.]

To this non-conservative reporter, the power of Dreher’s story comes from its plausibility. Public schools really do tend to push a certain vision of sexuality and gender that might go against some conservative beliefs.

But here’s the kicker: As Prof. Schneider’s essay reminds us, it is only some public schools that might do such things. Leaping from one case—or even several cases—to a sweeping pronouncement about the nature of public education today is unwarranted.

And of all people, Dreher himself should be the first to agree. Because in the end, anyone from any side with any axe to grind can put together the same sort of blistering and accurate accusation. Looking at the terrible and heart-breaking record of sexual abuse in private Christian schools, for example—even Dreher’s preferred sort of “Classical” Christian schools—might lead fair-minded observers to conclude that private evangelical-Christian education is foundationally perverted by its penchant for hierarchy, patriarchy, and subjugation.

Indeed, we do not need to look far to see survivors who do just that, concluding, for instance,

 purity culture creates a toxic environment that enables abuse and assault.

Or further,

Predators are enabled by the inherent patriarchy that disbelieves female victims, on the purity culture that treats abuse as a sexual sin rather than a violent crime, and the zealous willingness to believe the abuser’s claims of repentance (to forgive is divine, after all).

Is it in the very nature of evangelical Christian schools to enable sexual abuse? The string of examples certainly seem to point in that direction. And we’ll be wise to heed the warnings. However, we’ll also be wise to remember Schneider’s words.

Though it might be useful for “rousing the collective conscience,” jumping to conclusions about America’s school systems is fundamentally flawed. There is no single public school system. There is no single, coherent evangelical system. The merits and terrors of each need to be understood as they really are, not as judgments on an entire way of life.

More Proof: America Has No Public School System

We could be mad that it took them this long to notice. Or we could celebrate the fact that we’re finally getting some attention to the issue. In addition, though, we have to recognize another big implication of this story.

First, the bummer. How can it be “news” that American public school teachers are working too hard? A recent series in USA Today profiled fifteen teachers across the United States. As they reported,

We found that teachers are worried about more than money. They feel misunderstood, unheard and, above all, disrespected.

That disrespect comes from many sources: parents who are uninvolved or too involved; government mandates that dictate how, and to what measures, teachers must teach; state school budgets that have never recovered from Great Recession cuts, leading to inadequately prepared teachers and inadequately supplied classrooms.

We’re glad to get some front-page attention to the difficulties of teaching, of course, but it’s difficult not to say…well, duh. Of course teachers have a tough row to hoe. After we digest that non-bombshell, though, there’s more in this story that we should notice.

As historian Jack Schneider wrote recently for WaPo, Americans tend to have a unique love/hate relationship with public schooling. We hear over and over again that public schools are failing, yet most of us cherish our local public schools. And statistics tell us that—as a whole—America’s public schools are doing as well academically as they ever have.

Behind the fake-exposé headlines of the USA Today series, we can see a glimmer of truth that helps explain the weird relationship of Americans to their public schools. Reporters fanned out across the country to tag along with teachers.

manseau usa today

Oh give me a home…

In one case, that meant braving the wilds of Montana, where Traci Manseau teaches seventeen kids of all ages, all with the same last name, all in the same one-room schoolhouse. The students are all Hutterites, and they leave school at age sixteen to work on the communal farm.

At another school, 1,584 miles away (I looked it up) in Detroit, students wear a different sort of uniform. Instead of bonnets and cowboy shirts, the mostly African-American students wear uniform polo shirts and khakis. Their teacher, Felecia Branch, loves to hear them relate to fiction. And she hates it when they fight.

Down in Phoenix, meanwhile, teacher Rebecca Garelli welcomes 21 students in her English-Language-Learners class (ELL). Two of them come from Rwanda. Many of them speak only Spanish. Her job is to teach them—according to Arizona law—in English. And get them all to learn science.

branch usa today

…where the Chevrolets roam…

Are there similarities? Sure. All teachers feel stressed. And all good teachers care a lot about all their students. Whatever their backgrounds and locations, teachers want the best for their students and they can get frustrated when bad rules or bad situations make that unlikely.

But the vast differences between just these three examples show how inappropriate it is to talk about an American public school “system.” What it means to go to school in the United States can mean vastly different things.

Of course, SAGLRROILYBYGTH did not need to open the pages of USA Today to find that out. All of us can see the huge disparities in public education if we just take a tour around our local area. Even in the same city, the populations and possibilities of public schools can be worlds apart.

As Professor Schneider concluded,

Our schools haven’t failed. Most are as good as the schools anyplace else in the world. And in schools where that isn’t the case, the problem isn’t unions or bureaucracies or an absence of choice. The problem is us. The problem is the limit of our embrace.

If we waste our time asking about the American public-school system, we’ll always end up at an impasse. America’s schools are so diverse that there’s really no system to it all. When it comes to our sad history of educational culture wars, pundits on all sides have been able to say whatever they wanted about America’s schools and find real evidence to back it up. They could always find proof of almost any trend they wanted to celebrate or despise.

Are America’s schools mere “sorting machines?” Yep. Do they harbor left-wing teachers who sneakily try to subvert patriotic traditions? Uh-huh. Do America’s schools remain trapped in ancient ruts? Of course. Do they engage in innovative, world-class education? That, too.

Like the blind scholars and the elephant, pundits and politicians will always be able to prove anything they want to about America’s schools, because they can all be right.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

I don’t know how people had time to write stuff when the Brewers were in the playoffs, but they did. It has been a whirlwind week. Here are some of the top ILYBYGTH-themed stories from the interwebs:

What 81%? A new look at white evangelicals and Trump, at CT.

Some background on the new president of the Moody Bible Institute at RNS.

1940s postcard library

Getting those dispensations right…c. 1940s.

Trump, Pocahontas, and the Cherokee Nation: Senator Warren releases her DNA results, denied by both Cherokee Nation and Trump, at Politico.

Schools and the midterm elections: In Ohio, a failed charter network becomes a political football.

“He was clinically upset.” Rich parents reject Zuckerberg’s edu-plan, at NYMag.

Atheists keep sneaking in God through the back door. A review of Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism at NR.

What Christianity and secular humanism share is more important than their differences: No other religious tradition—Jewish, Greek, Indian, Chinese—envisions history as linear rather than cyclical or conceives of humanity as a unitary collective subject. The very idea of utopia—a place where everyone is happy—could not have occurred to people who took for granted that individuals have irreconcilable desires and ideals, and that conflict is therefore impossible to eliminate. Western universalism, Gray scoffs, is very provincial indeed.

It can happen here: A century after the Spanish flu, what are the chances of another worldwide pandemic? At Vox.

keep the faith vote for science

Hoosiers can love Jesus AND Bill Nye…

Finally! Indiana voters urged to “Keep the Faith and Vote for Science,” at IS.

How are America’s public schools really doing? It’s a trickier question than it seems, says Jack Schneider at WaPo.

America’s schools don’t merely reflect our nation’s material prosperity. They also reflect our moral poverty. . . . Reform rhetoric about the failures of America’s schools is both overheated and off the mark. Our schools haven’t failed. Most are as good as the schools anyplace else in the world. And in schools where that isn’t the case, the problem isn’t unions or bureaucracies or an absence of choice. The problem is us. The problem is the limit of our embrace.

Why is an academic life harder for women and minorities? Columbia offers its findings at CHE.

Conservative campus group restricts audience for Ben Shapiro at USC, at IHE.

New survey: America’s evangelicals tend to like heresy, at CT.

religion as personal belief

How school reform works, until it doesn’t. Maine tries a new approach, then retreats, at Chalkbeat.

Proponents of proficiency-based learning argue that none of this reflects flaws in the concept. Maine struggled, they say, because they didn’t introduce the new systems thoughtfully enough, moving too quickly and requiring change rather than encouraging it.

Atheist and creationism-basher Lawrence Krauss announces his retirement after harassment allegations, at FA.